How to Get Control and Automation Projects Approved

Gaining approval for control and automation projects and seeing them succeed requires tight integration with business goals and diligent resolution of specific problems.Fundamental motivators driving manufacturers to invest in control and automation systems include a desire to reduce costs and improve:Although few would argue with the logic of these common-sense motivators, they're rarely...

By Dave Harrold, CONTROL ENGINEERING August 1, 1999
  • Process control and instrumentation

  • Business planning

  • Specifications

  • System analysis or design

Top 5 things to remember to get projects APPROVED
Manufacturing Profitability Index
Cautions of pushing to 100% capacity
Prioritizing project opportunities

Gaining approval for control and automation projects and seeing them succeed requires tight integration with business goals and diligent resolution of specific problems.

Fundamental motivators driving manufacturers to invest in control and automation systems include a desire to reduce costs and improve:

  • Product quality;

  • Safety;

  • Manufacturing flexibility and agility;

  • Operations reliability;

  • Decision-making;

  • Regulatory compliance;

  • Product yields;

  • Productivity; and/or

  • Production;

Although few would argue with the logic of these common-sense motivators, they’re rarely integrated into control and automation project investment justification. Even when business, process, and system objectives are defined and linked, the information often is omitted in request for proposals. Too frequently, requests for proposals only focus on price, ease-of-use, and technology. Such a narrow view not only adversely impacts users, but also impacts how suppliers design, deliver, and support control and automation systems.

Process improvement breakthroughs seldom are achieved by merely changing the way the control system operates. Progressing through improvement brainstorming will likely identify requirements to replace pumps, heat exchangers, and vessels. These are as much a part of control and automation improvements as is a distributed control system and should be included in preparing a complete project justification.

When business leaders are asked if control and automation expenditures during the past two decades have met expectations, many respond that these investments have not delivered as promised. For those chartered with the day-to-day ‘care and feeding’ of control and automation systems, it can be discouraging to think millions of dollars and myriad hours of hard work fail to meet expectations.

The most significant among contributing reasons is that as a group process control and automation ‘experts’ have done a poor job of documenting successes in a way that business leaders understand and appreciate.

For example, finding a business leader who appreciates or understands the business benefits resulting from elimination of overshoot in a critical temperature loop is rare. It’s the responsibility of those with the facts (i.e., process experts) to document delivered benefits in terms that relate to the audience (i.e., business leaders). Pessimism about future automation and control system investments can be fought by using consistent and understandable facts about present automation and control system advantages.

Another reason for disappointment comes when technology is implemented for technology’s sake. When focus is on bandwidth, pixels, colors, and processor chips, tangible benefits rarely correlate with business objectives.

Additional sources of disappointment occur when a control and automation project is specified to be a direct replacement for existing systems and/or the focus is on time and budget.

Directly replacing anything is an expenditure no one likes. When that expenditure is accompanied by lost production to accommodate a ‘cut-over’ to the replacement system, business leaders are rightfully upset.

Being on time and within budget is important, but when those are the sole focus the project is usually staffed with implementers who can quickly deliver exactly what’s specified. Any innovative thinking on projects with a time and budget focus is directed to how to ‘reuse’ existing databases, program code, and graphics. Process improvement innovation is frequently resisted.

To change business leaders’ perception of control and automation return on investment requires changing the criteria used to define, select, and track project justifications.

Define quantifiable objectives

Don’t assume information leads to understanding For example, a business objective to increase production doesn’t necessarily equate to more pounds, gallons, or units out the door. It could mean a need for less scrap material, or stated in a positive manner, improved first-pass product yields. If business objectives are not stated in consistent, quantifiable terms, ask more questions. Disappointment results from a project launched to add capacity, when capacity is not the real issue.

One reason consistent, quantifiable measurements may be missing in business objectives is because none exists. Business leaders rely on indexes, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average, to indicate overall business performance, but fail to establish and use similar indexes to compare current and past manufacturing efficiencies within their own companies. Failure to establish a company-wide performance index is a perfect example of the proverb, if you don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.

Real World Technology’s (Mount Prospect, Ill.) trademarked Manufacturing Profitability Index (MPI) establishes a business performance index understandable by operations personnel, production line managers, manufacturing executives, ceos, and cfos (see Manufacturing Profitability Index diagram). As an enterprise-wide tool, MPI provides valuable information to calculate a return on manufacturing assets, utilization, and overall profitability. Even so, establishment and use of an index, such as MPI, is only the first step.

Once business objectives are defined, understood, and quantified, the next step is to analyze and benchmark processes to identify opportunities for improvement. According to Jay Colclazier, an industry consultant with Fisher-Rosemount (Austin, Tex.), identification of opportunities is best accomplished by assembling a group that includes those who understand the problems (i.e., operators and unit managers) and those who can offer possible solutions (i.e., maintenance, process engineers, process control experts, and information technologist). Mr. Colclazier explains that such a team can work through the identification, quantification, prioritization, and mapping of process opportunities with business opportunities in just a few days (see Prioritized ranking sidebar). Examination of critical process measurements and control points, internal and external disturbances, and equipment and regulatory restraints identifies potential areas of opportunities. But, Mr. Colclazier cautions, ‘Identifying opportunities must be accompanied by understanding the process and analyzing the opportunity. For example, an opportunity to reduce variability is common, but analysis may reveal that where the variability shows up in the process is not its source.’

Once detailed process objectives are identified, analyzed, and prioritized, they need to be linked to the original business objectives in a way that ensures understanding.

For example, a defined business objective might be to increase production by 20%. Consider a process consisting of a reactor, preheater, and stripper. Each piece of equipment is evaluated to establish its current benchmark and to pinpoint where to focus attention and investments. Analysis reveals the reactor is operating near 80% capacity, but the preheater and stripper are already operating at or near full capacity. Constructing a stair-step diagram of each piece of equipment is an effective way of pictorially explaining the gap between current and target objectives (see Stair-step diagram). When addressing a variety of business objectives that affect the same process equipment, a stair-step diagram for each objective is less confusing and less likely to be misinterpreted.

Most control system suppliers offer services and/or tools to help identify and prioritize critical loops. For example, Honeywell’s (Phoenix, Ariz.) Loop Scout is a controller performance assessment tool, with accompanying services, that delivers expertise via the Internet.

Stair-step diagrams can provide clear visualization of production equipment’s
current and target capabilities and the capital cost that each piece of equipment
requires to reach the target.

Equipment efficiency and performance-often determined by material, mass, and energy balance calculations-offer another way of establishing benchmarks meaningful to operations personnel. Development of process models is time consuming, but success may depend on having a proven set of physical properties, especially if the process contains non-ideal interactions. When used with simulations, these models can be effective in conducting a ‘what if’ analysis. Recent software improvements from companies like Aspen Technology (Cambridge, Mass.), Hyprotec (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), Pavilion Technologies (Austin, Tex.), and Simulation Sciences (Brea, Calif.) allow users to develop sophisticated efficiency and performance calculations that run in real-time using existing process variables.

System objectives are the last step in justifying a control and automation project. System objectives identify capabilities and limitations of the control and automation system to meet business and process objectives. To ensure a full understanding of control system capabilities and limitations, it is best to develop system objectives in conjunction with the control system supplier or suppliers.

If a new system is required, having business and process objectives clearly defined and quantified becomes beneficial in evaluating and reducing the available control system choices.

When users do their homework and are prepared to address measurable objectives, suppliers usually put their best foot forward. Rather than listening to ‘canned’ presentations and viewing ‘generic’ demonstrations, the agenda focuses on solving business and process objectives. Instead of spending time with marketing and sales folks, time is spent with industry experts that could become part of the implementation team. Detailed conversations can result in recommended solution architectures. Users should not be surprised if the best solution is one with products and services from more than one supplier, with integration responsibility assigned to the supplier providing the majority of product and services.

When an existing control and automation system is to be modified or upgraded, the requirement to link system objectives to business and process objectives still exists. The only difference is eliminating the need to evaluate and select a supplier.

Creeping elegance and commitment

Assembling the business, process, and system objectives to form a control and automation system project justification will identify some ‘nice to have’ items. Don’t fall into the ‘creeping elegance’ pit, such as when you need a new printer cartridge and end up purchasing a new printer.

Creeping elegance can be avoided by ensuring everything improves, increases, or reduces defined business objectives.

Many are the horror stories of projects justified, monies spent, expectations not met, and careers ended. But when diligence is applied to ensuring business, process, and system objectives are defined and linked business leaders commitment to control and automation investments will improve.

Top 5 things to remember to get projects APPROVED

Benchmark and obtain agreement on current process performance.

Be realistic and specific when establishing expected project results.

Be specific when describing what hardware, software, and services are included in the projects scope.

Be realistic when establishing project staffing requirements and milestone dates.

Be specific in linking project benefits to identified and measurable business results.

Source: Control Engineering

Manufacturing Profitability Index

MPI = (Actual output/Designed output) x Gross margin % x (Selling price x volume)

Use of a manufacturing profitability index can reveal production performance information in much the same way the Dow Jones Industrial Average reveals business and market performances. Source: Control Engineering and Real World Technologies

Cautions of pushing to 100% capacity

Wanting to use every bit of capacity bought and paid for may not always be the best approach.

For example, when a distillation column floods, it may have to completely recover before any usable product is produced.

If a column is 100% reliable at 90% capacity, but drops to 90% reliable because of more frequent flooding situations when operated at 100% capacity, column efficiency actually drops to about 88%. The challenge is to get 100% reliability nearer 98% of capacity.

One possible aid is to provide an on-line column efficiency calculation linked to a flooding situation indicator. An operator warning set at the 98% mark suggests the operator reduce column feed until the flooding situation passes, thus maintaining improved column utilization.

Prioritizing project opportunities

For many process engineers the problem is not in identifying and listing improvement opportunities; the problem is sorting through the list and establishing impartial priorities for each opportunity.

Fisher-Rosemount’s (Austin, Tex.) performance consultants have evolved a process improvement assessment methodology and associated tools that within about one week can identify, analyze, and prioritize an entire process area.

Working with a customer’s team of operations and maintenance personnel, critical process performance criteria and potential benefits are identified and entered into a database. Information captured includes current and target performance measurements and annualized benefits.

The performance criteria database is enhanced by identifying critical control points with an emphasis on documenting the effects each control point has on performance criteria.

Discussions about the effects of constraints and disturbances on performance criteria are ranked and recorded.

Armed with an understanding of critical performance criteria information, the team identifies and ranks ways and means to improve. Database calculations begin to percolate improvement opportunities, often to the surprise of team members.

The final step requires the team to analyze resources of capital, people, technology, risk, and timing with each opportunity. A final calculation of the database produces a prioritized list of realistic opportunities to improve process performance.